The woman caught in audultery
Lent 5: 21st March, 2010
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
One thing that working among the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transexual communities in the cities of the United States has taught Andrew Marin, a young evangelical American Christian, is how to handle 'close-ended' questions.
He says, 'Whenever I speak at Christian events across the country, it never fails that the very first question I am always asked is, "Do you think homosexuality is a sin?" ... The most common questions I receive in any venue are always closed-ended — asking for a short, opinionated closed-ended response. After seeing the pattern repeat itself over a lengthy amount of time I felt the need to examine the motives behind such a universally accepted means to query someone's belief system'.
'Closed-ended questions are made to be answered with a "yes" or "no". ... Closed-ended questions don't cultivate dialogue. The asker has already answered the question for themselves and is only seeking to figure out where the other person fits within their own preconceived metric — either for or against'. ... 'My rule of thumb', says Marin, 'is to never answer a closed-ended question with a close-ended answer! I instead change the question to an open-ended version and ask right back'.
He goes on, 'The way I handle such a situation is not a new response — just a forgotten one. Jesus modelled this practice throughout the Gospels. ... Jesus did not respond with yes or no, but rather elevated the conversation with a question of his own that more thoroughly made his point. Jesus understood the intentionality that many of the hot-button legalistic issues of his day deserved'.
Today's Gospel is one of those occasions when Jesus was confronted with just such a hot-button, legalistic issue, requiring of him a 'yes' or 'no' answer. A woman who had been caught in the act of adultery was dragged into his presence by the Religious leaders, acting as Religious police. Their entire motive was to put Jesus on the spot with a 'closed-ended' question.
They allege that the torah (law) pronounced the death penalty by stoning for adultery. In actual fact the law prescribed the death penalty not only for the woman adulterer but for the male adulterer as well, but alas! he is nowhere to be seen in this story! In keeping with the spirit of a patriarchal, chauvinistic culture, if any one was at fault, it must surely have been the woman!
So the Religious authorities turn to Jesus with their question — 'Now what do you say — Stone her?' — 'yes' or 'no'.
It was a trap.
To reply 'yes — she is guilty, the law prescribes stoning; go to it', would have discredited Jesus in the eyes of the common people who saw him as a 'friend of tax-collectors and sinners'.
To reply 'no — she should not be stoned', would support the suspicions of the authorities who already were upset by his flouting the law by healing on the Sabbath.
Jesus refuses to give a close-ended 'yes' or 'no' answer to their close-ended question. In fact, he made no reply at all.
Instead, he bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. He ignored their continuing close-ended questions and when he straightened up he said to them, 'Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her'.
In other words, he makes it clear, on the one hand, that he is not standing lightly to the law. He actually says the punishment can go ahead — as long as it is initiated by someone who has never sinned and who therefore has the right to carry out this solemn act of judgment. In effect, he says to them, 'let the stoning begin. Who is going to be first?'
On the other hand, he powerfully drives home that fact that judgment is a double-edged sword. In judging others we judge ourselves, and an unwillingness to pass judgment on ourselves undercuts our right to pronounce it on others.
One by one the would-be executioners slip away. Jesus alone is left with the woman and addresses her for the first time. 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She said, 'No one, sir'.
And then comes the all-important final words of Jesus upon which I would like to focus our attention: 'Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again'.
The two parts of this response reveal first, Jesus' forgiveness and gentleness and second, Jesus' call to holiness.
1. 'Neither do I condemn you'.
The story is a miracle of the grace of God. As one commentator puts it, 'The turning of water into wine, the healing of the dying lad by a word, the feeding of the five thousand and more with a snack lunch, the walking on a storm-tossed sea; none of these, nor all of them together, compares with this, that Jesus said "neither do I condemn you". In this sentence, and in the heart of mercy which lay behind it, is all our hope and all our salvation for ever'.
The woman was able, through Jesus' acceptance and forgiveness, to see herself as someone who was loved and valued by God and to go on and find her identity and self-worth in the only way that really counts in the end.
God's forgiveness is what makes the Church. It makes a community that is distinctive — not in feeling superior to others, but in knowing the God who demands all and forgives all and values each immeasurably. God's forgiveness, because it puts our relationship with God right and our relationships with other people right, is the root of everything that it means to be the Church.
Chris Wright, an Old Testament scholar, has said that as a young man his conscience was greatly troubled by lust and he once shared his secret problem with an older Christian counsellor as they walked around a lake for hours. At the end of the conversation, they sat down and the older man laid his hands on Chris's head and prayed these words, which Chris says, 'have lived with him ever since':
Dear Lord, thank you that Chris is your child and that he is clean because he is in your hands. For your hands will touch nothing unclean, except for the purpose of making it clean through the blood of Christ.
He says, 'I was so released by those cleansing words that I went for a swim in the lake straight after, and it felt like a sacrament of washing to my soul'. It was not that temptation had been eliminated or that he has never sinned again but he knows 'where to go quickly for confession and fresh cleansing'.
'Neither do I condemn you' — the forgiveness of Jesus. And with this, notice also the gentleness of Jesus.
Jesus doesn't throw 'clobber texts' from the Scriptures at the woman. Too often, in today's debates over sexual ethics, smugness, dogmatism and the use of Bible texts leaves people bruised and condemned rather than guided and enlightened. In the absence of gospel gentleness people cannot take clobbering — biblical or otherwise.
The New Testament makes it clear that the church is to emulate the gentleness of Jesus in its pastoral ministry. It needs to move with the greatest sensitivity and understanding of the individual who has failed.
Gentleness flows directly from an awareness that we too are frail and prone to get it wrong or be led astray. The 'gentle' start from no presumption of their unfailing 'rightness' — quite the reverse.
The daughter of the American Evangelist Billy Graham was once asked about her fondest memories of her dad. She recalled one time in particular, when the Graham family was attending a rally in support of President Bill Clinton after his sex scandal was made public.
A reporter asked Billy Graham, "Why are you here supporting this man after everything he had done to this country?" Billy Graham's answer was succinct, powerful and true. "It is the Holy Spirit's job to convict, God's job to judge and my job to love."
2. 'Go now and leave your life of sin'.
In the second part of Jesus final words to the woman there is an unambiguous command: 'Go now and leave your life of sin'.
The church is not only intended to be a home for sinners. The Archbishop of York sums up what I think these final words of Jesus to the woman mean for us as a church.
He has said that, a 'dull, pedestrian, committee-bound, utilitarian view of the church is hardly likely to inspire or to convert anyone'. He has called instead, for a vision of the church as 'a divine society ... truly a home for sinners and a school for saints'.
I like that definition of the church, but the trouble is that many people think that it is only rather special people, like Mary McKillop, who are saints with capital S, people who get to have St in front of their names: St Peter and St Paul and so. The New Testament uses the word 'saint' to describe all Christians. Many of Paul's letters for example begin with something like: 'to all the saints in Philippi' meaning to the whole church at Philippi.
The word 'saints' means literally 'holy ones'. Admittedly, that doesn't really sound any more credible when we use it of ourselves in the church!
But the problem is with our idea of holiness or saintliness. Being holy doesn't primarily mean being good. It means being dedicated to God, set-apart for God. To be what the New Testament calls a saint is an extraordinary privilege and an extraordinary responsibility. We belong to God so we must live as people who belong to God.
The woman in today's Gospel was not given a licence to go on sinning. Rather, she was directed by Jesus on to the path towards sanctification — becoming a 'holy one' — a saint.
We start the Christian journey — and we are always starting again in this sense — by realising that we owe everything to God. We start with thankfulness, gratitude to God.
If we really take to heart what God's love means for us, our whole lives will be suffused with gratitude to God, our lives will be lived as a thank-offering to God, expressions of our gratitude to God. Our lives will be dedicated to God, not so much out of duty as out of gratitude.
Gratitude speaks of God without self-promotion. It doesn't say: 'Aren't we wonderful?' It says, 'God is amazing'. But that does not happen when we attend to the impression we are making; it happens only when we attend to God. It is to live in the future for God's glory not our own glory.
Jesus doesn't magically transform the woman from an adulterer to a saint (and contrary to common belief, there's nothing to associate this woman with Mary Magdalene) but rather simply gives her an instruction about direction — leave this place you're at and move on from it. His command describes a movement not a position. In Christian terms, it is the call of discipleship — it says "follow me to wherever I take you — I don't promise you immediate perfection, but I do promise you hope".
To sum up and conclude, we can say that these final words of Jesus to the woman — 'Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more', get to the heart of what the church is intended to be.
It has been well said that the 'The church is the more, the very-much-more-than-we-think-possible, the so-much-more that the Spirit of God can make out of a bunch of forgiven sinners like us.' In the Archbishop's of York's words, it's 'a home for sinners and a school for saints'.